Letter 14, page 1

Vincent van Gogh
(1853–1890)

Vincent van Gogh, letter to Émile Bernard, Arles, 5 August 1888

About this exhibition: 

Painted with Words is a compelling look at Vincent van Gogh's correspondence to his young colleague Émile Bernard between 1887 and 1889. Van Gogh's words and sketches reveal his thoughts about art and life and communicate his groundbreaking work in Arles to his fellow painter.

Van Gogh's letters to Bernard reveal the tenor of their relationship. Van Gogh assumed the role of an older, wiser brother, offering praise or criticism of Bernard's paintings, drawings, and poems. At the same time the letters chronicle van Gogh's own struggles, as he reached his artistic maturity in isolation in Arles and St. Rémy. Throughout the letters are no less than twelve sketches by van Gogh meant to provide Bernard with an idea of his work in progress, including studies related to the paintings The Langlois Bridge, Houses at Saintes-Maries-de-la-Mer, Boats on the beach at Saintes-Maries, The Sower, and View of Arles at Sunset.

Translation: 

My dear old Bernard,
I realize that I've forgotten to answer your question as to whether Gauguin is still in Pont-Aven. Yes, he's still there, and if you feel like writing to him am inclined to believe that it will please him. It is still likely that he will join me here shortly, as soon as either one of us is able to find the travel expenses.

I do not believe that this question of the Dutchmen, which we're discussing these days, is without interest. It is quite interesting to consult them when it's a matter of any kind of virility, originality, naturalism.

In the first place, I must speak to you again about yourself, about two still lifes that you have done, and about the two portraits of your grandmother. Have you ever done better, have you ever been more yourself, and somebody? Not in my opinion. Profound study of the first thing to come to hand, of the first person to come along, was enough to really create something. Do you know what made me like these three or four studies so much? That je ne sais quoi of something deliberate, very wise, that je ne sais quoi of something steady and firm and sure of oneself, which they show. You have never been closer to Rembrandt, my dear chap, than then. In Rembrandt's studio, the incomparable sphinx, Vermeer of Delft, found this extremely sound technique that has not been surpassed. Which today . . . we're burning . . . to find. Oh, I know that we are working and arguing COLOR as they did chiaroscuro, value.

What do these differences matter when in the end it's a question of expressing oneself powerfully?

At present . . . you're examining primitive Italian and German techniques, the symbolic meaning that the Italians' abstract and mystical drawing may contain. Do so.

Credits: 

© 2007 Van Gogh Museum, Amsterdam

Major support for Painted with Words: Vincent van Gogh's Letters to Émile Bernard and its accompanying catalogue was provided by the International Music and Art Foundation. Generous support was also provided by the Robert Lehman Foundation and the National Endowment for the Arts.